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Republicans Are Scary. Democrats? Just Scared.

How did the Republicans win? In a word: Fear. From President Bush on down to state and local offices (e.g., Wake County Commissioners-elect Tony Gurley and Phil Jeffreys), Republicans argued that progressive goals cannot be pursued while we're in a recession, hunting for terrorists and preparing for war in Iraq. Democrats thought the recession would be to their advantage, but especially on economic issues the GOP scared a lot of voters into thinking the Democrats would only make a bad situation worse.

Republican economics reduced nicely to a 1-2 punch: 1) The recession isn't our fault, it started under Clinton and got worse after 9/11; and 2) The Democrats' approach will be to spend (and tax) more just when we can least afford it. All this against a backdrop of color-coded security alerts.

The premise of Republican economics is that money invested in the private sector is, by definition, being put to its most efficient use--the meaning of "let the markets work." Money spent in the public sector, on the other hand, is at best a necessary evil--as for "security"--but otherwise falls somewhere between inefficient generosity and flat-out waste.

Elizabeth Dole, our senator-elect, for example, said her top priority would be getting a line-item veto added to the Constitution "so the President can rid the federal budget of waste and pork-barrel spending." As to whether additional government spending of some kinds might not be wasteful, Dole had this to say: "The Senate needs to understand that the money they are spending in Washington co from hard-working women and men who deserve to keep more of what they earn to help pay for their child's daycare or a well-deserved family vacation" (emphasis added).

Thus, Dole was "proud to take the no-new-taxes pledge"--and not just while there's a recession. "Working families will never have to wonder where my vote will be," she said.

And the Democrats? Most couldn't salute fast enough on terrorism and the war. As for the economy, at some point the party latched onto a line President Kennedy once used, "A rising tide lifts all the boats." It's a bad metaphor for an activist party: The tide rises (and falls) with no help from anybody. And some people don't have a boat. A better metaphor that New Deal Democrats used to win on was "Priming the Pump." When the economy slumps, in steps the government, not to raise taxes--better to cut them--but the main thing is to increase the flow of public money to housing, transportation, schools and other investments that in turn will spark new private-sector activity.

In other words, a healthy private sector relies on a healthy public sector, not just the other way around. Moreover, neither is necessarily efficient. This used to be the Democrats' message, but any more it seems like they're scared of it. Interestingly, though, it did turn up, one day after the election, in the business pages of The News & Observer.

Boston venture capitalist Howard Anderson was talking about the "silly, silly things" private investors tossed their money at as they chased the golden geese of the '90s techno-boom. "Irrational exuberance," he called it. "We had suspended good judgment." Hundreds of billions were wasted. And not by government.

Will the tech economy bounce back? Anderson was asked. Yes, he said, and the Research Triangle will especially, because it has "all the ingredients"--which he listed, in order, as first-rate universities, successful companies and the "sophisticated capital" that comes when the first two reach "critical mass."

In short: Public + Private=Growth. P.S: Prime the pump. There's "a ton of capital" sitting on the sidelines right now, Anderson added. "When we see the right area and see it starts to move, it's not a question of going out to get the money. We've got it."

It's not the zero-sum game Dole described. The money Washington spends to strengthen the public infrastructure should result in our having more to spend on that well-earned vacation--and better roads to get us there. Unless it's wasted on silly, silly things, of course.

But Senate candidate Erskine Bowles was a pro-war "fiscal conservative" alarmed by the Bush budget deficits. And in Raleigh, the General Assembly's Democrats had just finished doing what pump-primers oughtn't: They raised taxes in a recession.

Why? Because in the roaring '90s, when money was flush and the venture capitalists were "investing" it with abandon, these same Democrats voted for big tax cuts that drained the state's reserves instead of filling them. Come the '00s and recession, there was nothing to prime the pump with.

DiamondDiamondDiamondWake Republicans: Rise and Fall?
The last time the Republicans swept into power in Wake County, in 1994, they slashed taxes, delayed building new schools and cut the budgets for the existing ones. In '96 and '98, out they went. Will history repeat itself?

Unless a recount overturns Phil Jeffreys' win over Democrat Michael Weeks, the Republicans will hold a 5-2 majority on the Wake Commission. Jeffreys and Tony Gurley come in as '94-style tax-cutters. But incumbent Herb Council is a budget moderate and newly elected Commissioner Joe Bryan, the Knightdale mayor, promises to be pro-schools. And which side is the fifth Republican, Kenn Gardner, on?

If Gardner joins the moderates, the three can do business with the two Democratic members and isolate the tax-cutters. But if Gardner joins with the tax-cutters, Council and Bryan will have a harder time holding the middle ground, because to do so they'll have to "break with their party."

Here's a clue: On the vote to raise the sales tax a half-cent just prior to the election (to replace lost state aid), Council joined the five Democrats in voting yes. Gardner, his aspirations for higher office showing--he ran in a GOP House primary this year, but lost to the arch-conservative Paul Stam--was the lone no vote.

DiamondDiamondDiamondWake Democrats: Back to the Future?
The two survivors on the Wake Commission are Betty Lou Ward, who's already said she won't run again in 2004, and Vernon Malone, who's resigning to take the state Senate seat he won. So there's a big void where the forceful opposition's supposed to be.

A big void? Sheriff John Baker, defeated for re-election, comes immediately to mind. The one-time Pittsburgh Steeler is big and a force and many progressive Democrats would love to see him named to Malone's seat, which must be filled by someone from Southeast Wake. Others, sensing the 67-year-old Baker doesn't really want it, are pushing Doris Burke, 72, a retired teacher who made a strong run for the school board in '99. Still others are searching for a new face, preferably a young(er) one. The only announced candidate is Harold Webb, Malone's campaign manager and a former Hunt administration official, who is 77.

Meanwhile, Wake Democratic Chair Michael Weisel's plans to resign were known prior to the election, and party activists are looking for a new chair who can breathe some life into the party, unify the many, many factions and--most importantly--recruit a new generation of Democratic candidates. Different folks are pushing Lorrin Freeman, a lawyer and Young Democrats leader, and former County Commissioner Yevonne Brannon. Brannon wasn't talking when we called her. Freeman, who works for Attorney General Cooper (and is Easley administration lobbyist Franklin Freeman's daughter), says she wants the job. EndBlock

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